It was a cruel case of close but no cigar for the Lions as last year's no-hopers went down 24-20 to the defending champion Bulls.
It was a cruel case of close but no cigar for the Lions as last year's no-hopers went down 24-20 to the defending champion Bulls in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Down 24-5 at half-time, it was a brave second-half fightback from the hosts who were just a try away from causing the biggest upset in the opening weekend of Super Rugby.
The motivated Lions even outscored their neighbours by three tries to two, though fly-half Elton Jantjies' poor form from the kicking tee ultimately cost them dearly.
The home side came out all guns blazing and were rewarded by winning a second-minute penalty, which their number 10 struck against the upright.
Both sides then enjoyed some good attacking exchanges which came to nothing – the Johannesburg outfit clearly looking a better team from 12 months ago.
However, more sustained pressure from the visitors led to the opening try after 15 minutes when the ball was spread from left to right allowing full-back Zane Kirchner to go over unmarked.
Morne Steyn missed the conversion, but the gulf in class was again evident two minutes later – wing Gerhard van den Heever showing extreme pace to slip through a slight hole in the Lions defence, before dotting down under the post.
This time the Springbok fly-half converted and followed it up by landing a 50-metre penalty to put his side 15-0 ahead after the opening quarter.
He extended the lead by another three points just before the half-hour mark, but the home side were finally handed some relief five minutes short of half-time when their persistence led to Murray scoring courtesy of a fine angled run.
Jantjies wasted the conversion and, with time running out, Steyn capitalised with two more penalties to see his side nineteen points ahead at the break.
Coach John Mitchell's interval talk seemed to spur his team after the restart as they dominated for the next 20 minutes with replacement hooker Martin Bezuidenhout and flank Warren Whiteley taking the credit of scoring after some excellent build-up play by their team-mates, although their dominance was aided by a yellow card for Bulls centre Stephan Dippenaar.
The inconsistent Jantjies only made one of the conversions, but found his range with a penalty 12 minutes from the end to set up a tense finish.
Steyn should have cancelled out that effort with a penalty of his own that sailed narrowly wide, but tired legs from the Lions towards the end ensured the Bulls held on.
TriesMurray, Bezuidenhout, Whiteley
Tries: Kirchner, Van den Heever
Pens: Steyn 4
Lions: 15 Jaco Taute, 14 Lionel Mapoe, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Doppies La Grange, 11 Michael Killian, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Josh Strauss, 6 Derick Minnie, 5 Franco van der Merwe (c), 4 George Earl, 3 Patrick Cilliers, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Martin Bezuidenhout, 17 Kevin Buys, 18 Wikus van Heerden, 19 Cobus Grobbelaar, 20 Rory Kockott, 21 Burton Francis, 22 James Kamana.
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Stephan Dippenaar, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Gurthro Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Rossouw de Klerk, 18 Danie Rossouw, 19 Derick Kuun, 20 Ruan Snyman, 21 Francois Brummer, 22 Jaco van der Westhuyzen.
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)